vain imaginations

Vain Imaginations

Not long ago, I attended a retreat at which a college student, freshly discovering his call to an intercessory prayer ministry, spent hours every night praying by name for everyone on the retreat. The last morning when I ran into him, he said, “Sue! As I was praying for you, I received a word from the Lord for you.”

Uh-oh. I’d heard this before. And every time I had taken it to the Lord, asking if there were anything to it, the answer was no.

My defenses up, I smiled and said, “I’m listening.” He got a very thoughtful look on his face and said, “I have to get it exactly right. . . OK, the words were, ‘Guard against vain imaginations.'”

I thanked him for this and promised to immediately take it to the Lord. I had barely breathed, “Lord, is there anything to this?” when the lightbulb came on in my spirit and I knew EXACTLY what this was about.

Oh yeah. This was from God, all right.

For about a year, my husband and I had been carrying around an open wound on our souls. We had been deeply hurt by several people we had trusted and loved, and it is not exaggeration to call it traumatic. Every single day of that time I had engaged in fantasy conversations in my head with the people who inflicted so much pain—except they weren’t really so much conversations as monologues, with me lecturing on how badly they hurt us and how dishonoring their actions were to us and to God. . . yada yada yada.

Vain imaginations. Yep, this word was right on the money.

And God was so incredibly tender and grace-ful to merely exhort me to “guard against” them. Not, “You bad girl, you’ve been sinning against my sons in your mind. Repent!” Not, “And who are YOU to set yourself up as judge and jury? Look at your own fleshly heart, kiddo!”

Just, guard against them.

So I confessed my sin of indulging in self-vindicating fantasy, and resolved not to go there again. It didn’t take long, of course, before my mind returned to what had become a familiar and comforting indulgence—an emotional “binkie.” I stopped and said, “Well Lord, what am I supposed to do instead?” He didn’t even have to say anything, just wait for me to connect the dots since I already knew. “Oh. I should be praying for them instead, huh?”

Okay. Fleshly sigh.

The biblical pattern for changing behaviors is to replace and displace the old with something new, and eventually the temptation to indulge in vain imaginations about this issue faded with disuse. It still pops up occasionally, but I know what to do with it.

“Vain imaginations” is a good term for a lot of popular mental sin we so easily rationalize: engaging in internal arguments with people who aren’t even there, the lusting that accompanies sexual pornography for men or emotional pornography for women (steamy romance novels). We all spend time thinking about things that are empty, fruitless, and harmful to our spirits.

And we all need to guard against them.  


This blog post was originally published on February 2, 2009.

Sue Bohlin is a speaker/writer and webmistress for Probe Ministries, a Christian organization that helps people to think biblically. She loves teaching women and laughing, and if those two can be combined, all the better. She also loves speaking for MOPS (Mothers of Pre-Schoolers) and Stonecroft Ministries (Christian Women's Clubs) on the topic How to Handle the Things You Hate But Can't Change, based on her lifelong experience as a polio survivor. She has a freelance calligraphy business in her home studio; hand lettering was her "Proverbs 31 job" while her children were young. Sue also serves on the board of Living Hope Ministries, a Christ-centered organization that helps people struggling with unwanted homosexuality and the family members of those with same-sex attractions. Sue never met a cruise ship she didn't like, especially now that God has provided a travel scooter for getting around any ship! She is happily married to Dr. Ray Bohlin, writer and speaker on faith and science with Probe Ministries, and they have two grown sons. You can follow Sue on Twitter @suebohlin.


  • Heather A. Goodman

    How often do I do this!

    How often do I do this! That’s a good term for it–those imaginary talks I have where I share, they repent, all is well (after they do some serious apologizing, of course, and maybe offer to buy me a pony to make it up to me).

    Thank you for sharing.

  • Jamie Lath

    as a single…
    As a single woman, I did this all the time in the romantic way. I would imagine how this guy or that guy would finally come to his senses and be blown away by me. I finally realized how much of my waking hours were spent on this (and how damaging it was to my psyche). I thought about what it would be like if I never married, was 80, and still doing this in the nursing home. With quite a bit of battle, I was finally able to curb my "vain imaginations" (I love this term).

  • Jen Kliewer

    Great reminders
    Thank you, Sue, for sharing this. I do this a lot when I’m not walking by the Spirit. Now I know what to call it : ) I know it doesn’t please God… I have found that things rarely if ever work themselves out in the way I imagine in my head, though God *does* ultimately work things out, in a way that glorifies Himself. Mostly when I am in prayer, like you said – for the othe person – and then for my own heart. There is a lot to be said about abiding – staying in prayer, in the Word, and in the Spirit. Thanks again for the reminder, also for the reminder about how God still speaks today and how we must use discernment in listening.

  • Terry Frey

    Such depth to this well…….
    This is deep, Sue, and it’s honest and easily trusted. Thank you for sharing. I heard the Lord whisper these words to me in my heart and immediately went in search of the phrase, “Vain imaginations” throughout HIs Word. Once again He is my Deliverer, and my Eternal Salvation. We can be given to the Spirit or to the flesh. In this day I am set free. Praise Him for His most personal Word and Love. If we read to know that we are not alone, I have done a good thing today. And so have you. Thanks for writing and keeping this instruction for those of us who might long to learn so that we might gain the knowledge of God. To Him be praise forever and ever. Amen.

  • Anonymous

    how much is to much?
    100+ imaginary scenarios and arguments a day, i even labeled them into catergorys. theres about 15 different types and roughly 20 per 1 a day. is this more or less than you peeples?

    • Sue Bohlin

      Lots of vain imaginations

      I'm sorry I didn't see this till just now!

      Judging from my conversations with others as well as my personal experience, I think 100+ imaginary scenarios and arguments per day is quite a bit more than the norm.

      Here's a question for you: do you spend that much time thinking about God and His word?

    • Sue Bohlin

      Vain Imaginations

      I submit that vain means empty or meaningless, not of substance, and imagination means using one's mind to create things that do not exist or a new way of looking at things that do.

  • Kita


    Sue, I often find myself reading fanfiction of the tv shows that I used to or do look at (the emotional pornography I presume). I searched for an article that would assist in me curbing that dependence. Glad I found this one! I'm going to use your definition as a guide for growth.

    • Sue Bohlin

      Curbing dependence on vain imaginations

      Hi Kita,

      SO glad God brought you to this blog! For more help with taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ, check into Joshua Harris' (the "I Kissed Dating Goodbye" guy) book Sex Is Not the Problem, Lust Is:

      And thanks for pointing out that reading fanfiction is an easy way to fan the flames of thoughts that are not glorifying to God!


  • linnet

    God spoke to me as well

    God spoke to me about this as well. I just heard the words in my spirit  "vain imaginations" and thought, i have read that somewhere in the Bible and then found this site. Truely, I have been 'imagining'. Almost every waking moment. I come from a family where I have suffered alot of abuse. Of all types since childhood and I came into the habit of imagining that I am winning and they are losing. For example, that people have discovered them and are arguing with them and the police are involved and they (the family) are trying to find out how to get out of it. Or that a powerful man is in love with me and he is fighting with them and he is threatening to expose them. I need your prayers people of God. God did give me a word a some years ago that, "the egyptians you have seen today, today you are about to see them no more. I am still waiting to be 'free' of them and have recently 'fallen off the wagon', in my alcoholism. So I asked God when i found out that he was indeed talking to me that how can he call me to this level of spirituality when i am just a drunk and a smoker? But I know God knows what he is doing and I know that I am just resisting my giving up my favourite pasttime. I really want to stop drinking and smoking, I know it is not pleasing to God and now I want to put an effort to stop imagining these things as well. Thankyou for sharing that with us. God bless you.

  • K.L.

    Things popping up in my head, unwanted

    I sometimes have things pop into my head that I don't want there but they are usually perverse things aimed toward God or Jesus and it bothers me terribly. I love God and want to live complletely for Him, but these things are getting in the way and quite honestly, getting on my last nerve, as well. Does anyone ever experience these types of things or am I just messed up?

    • Sandra Glahn

      Yes, I Do

      Dear K. L.,

      When such thoughts pop into my head, I say, "Lord, you know that is not what I believe about you. I love you imperfectly, but I do love you." Then I let it go.

      During a season of my life when such thoughts appeared almost non-stop when I lay my head on the pillow, I got the Bible on CD and would put on earphones, filling my mind with the Word as I drifted off to sleep.

      You are not alone.


  • Sue Bohlin

    Fighting back those rotten thoughts

    Thanks for your insight, Sandi.

    K.L., you wouldn't believe how many emails we get at Probe Ministries asking this exact question! The enemy of our souls is quite practiced at speaking these blasphemous thoughts into our minds, using first person and using language that makes us think WE are the ones generating the thoughts.

    The apostle Paul gives us very good instruction on what to do when unwanted, ungodly thoughts intrude on us: take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:5). That means intentionally seizing it like a police officer grabs a criminal and slaps handcuffs on them, and marching it over to Jesus, handing the thought over to Him. It really helps to realize the thoughts are usually coming from the enemy, but even if they arise from our own rotten flesh, we still need to respond the same way, taking every thought captive to Christ.

    Over and over and over, as long as necessary. It helps to replace the rotten thoughts with praise, which is a good reason to be ready by memorizing a psalm or even just verses from the psalms, such as 8:1 "O Lord, our Lord, How majestic is Your name in all the earth, Who have displayed Your splendor above the heavens!" or 86:5 "For You, Lord, are good, and ready to forgive, And abundant in lovingkindness to all who call upon You."

    Glad you wrote!


  • Andrea Sister N'Christ

    Food for my Soul

    thank you for this article, as I search the word seeking God for answers concerning leaders who fall to temptation.I remember Dr Joyce Meyers saying where the mind goes the body follows.that book title led me into a study which bought me to vane my research I came across your article and it truly blessed my soul. It's helping me to stay ffocusedhe and not be affected by the actions of others,  but to examine myself so tthat I don't fall into sin myself.thank you so much, please send me a friend request on Facebook. May the favor of God be upon you and your family in Jesus name Amen.

  • Laura P.

    Completely related to this

    I couldn't sleep tonight so was playing in the computer, reading various things and then decided to read through Romans – came across the term "vain imaginations".  This phrase has been standing out to me for a few years, but especially over the last few weeks.  It's 1 am – now is as good a time as any to look it up and meditate on it.  Found your blog.  Loved it.  You described my thought processes so much.  It's a constant battle – however, like finding a piece of a puzzle, I can identify those thoughts as vain imaginations instead of justifying them.   Thanks for your openness and honesty.  Love it!

  • Greg Lindh

    Vain imaginations.

    Thank you, Sue Bohlin.  I've never understood what the Bible means when it refers to "vain imaginations."  Your explanation made it perfectly clear to me.  I've used vain imaginations my whole life and I will now go to battle against it.  I think it will be a difficult battle as I am very used to indulging in it.  Thanks again for your explanation.

  • Lois Williams

    Thank God for your honesty

    Thank you for your honesty and for allowing God to minister through you.  There are many of us who are having to renounce this oppressive spirit and your site will touch the hearts of many as it did me. To God Be The Glory.

    • Sue Bohlin

      Hello bre,

      I’m so glad you wrote!

      I believe the way to attack our vain imaginations is by doing what the Apostle Paul termed “taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). That’s about connecting our thoughts with Jesus, turning them over to Him.

      But it sounds like your greater need is to work on your relationship with Jesus. My guess is that you have not spent much time in His word if you think you need to get Him to like you. My guess is that you have some ideas ABOUT Jesus, but you don’t KNOW Him, which is how He defined eternal life. (John 17:3, “Now this is eternal life—that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you sent.”)

      The great news is that you can’t get Jesus to like you, because He already does! That’s kind of like asking how to get a mother to like her kid. We mothers LIKE and LOVE our children because they are ours . . . and Jesus LIKES and LOVES you because He made you! In fact, one of the most amazing verses in the Bible is John 17:23, where Jesus is talking to His heavenly Father and asks that “the world may know that You sent Me and have loved them just as You have loved Me.” Whoa! Did you catch that? The Father loves us—He loves YOU—just as He loves the Son, Jesus. And Jesus said that He and the Father are one. He loves you!

      I particularly love Zephaniah 3:17:

      “He will rejoice over you with gladness. He will bring you quietness with His love. He will delight in you with shouts of joy.”

      This is a vibrant picture of a God who deeply delights in those He loves, even to the point of spinning and dancing with exuberant joy over us! What a picture of One who not only LOVES us, but LIKES us!

      And why? Why does He like you? Because He made you! He made you in His image, and He proved His love for you by dying for you and coming back to life three days later. Can you think of anything greater than that?

      You also asked how you can know you’re saved. Over at Probe Ministries, the ministry where I serve, we’ve answered this question in various ways. I invite you to read “How Can I Know I’m Going to Heaven?” and check out the additional answers to email at the end of the article.

      Please, please read the gospels to get to know the Jesus who loved you first, so you could love Him back!

      Blessing you,

  • Nancy Russell

    I have noticed that when I choose to forgive and confess that forgiveness and put it in God’s hands it doesn’t play over in my mind. I forget all about it and have peace!

  • [email protected]

    Thank you Sue, I really enjoyed the most excellent insight.
    My thoughts to further the great discussions…
    The Hebrew for imagination is “yester”, which literally means “CONCEPTION” i.e. thoughts pondered on for long enough is bound to conceive something!
    1. God-sanctioned thoughts will produce Life
    2. Fleshly thoughts will entrap us either in escapism, or lead us further away from God’s plans – eventually forming a comfortable landing pad for the enemy to further his own agenda.
    3. Evil thoughts will sedate and lure us into loss, destruction, and even death
    As pointed out by earlier discussions, the challenge is to discern between the 3 sources and to end (take into captivity) every thought that is not from the Lord. (2 Cor 10:5)

    It must be very clear that imagination is a God given capacity. Without it, no amount of planning is possible – planning is Godly, and so is imagination. (Luke 14:28-30). God uses the same mechanism to bring His plans to life in us!

    Thus, in my opinion vein imagination can be defined as: Any extended thought process that continues without the Holy Spirit’s soonest endorsement. (The better we get to know God’s Word, the easier this becomes.) I understand that this may be considered by some to be a very narrow definition, but the following scriptures alludes to the importance of guarding our thoughts more diligently:

    Proverbs 23:7a (King James Version) – “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he.”
    Philippians 4:8 (New International Version) – “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”
    2 Corinthians 10:5 (The Message):
    “We use our powerful God-tools for smashing warped philosophies, tearing down barriers erected against the truth of God, fitting every loose thought and emotion and impulse into the structure of life shaped by Christ.”

    In conclusion, God-inspired imagination will change us and the world we live in and extend His Kingdom. However, vein imaginations will at best keep us entertained and occupied, and at worst being instruments of the enemy’s destruction. May we choose life!

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